National Geographic 2008 International Photography Contest
Sugino writes this caption to her photo, “In Japan, ancestral spirits come back to their families in mid-August every year. People provide rest for the ancestors’ spirits for three days and then send them back by putting them on lanterns to drift down river.”
What is missing is a description of the Obon Festival and the legend behind it:
A disciple of the Buddha wished to release his mother from the realm of suffering. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to his fellow monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and his mother’s release also opened his eyes to her personal history and the sacrifices that she had made for him. Oban became a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are recognized and appreciated not only through ritual, but by recognizing that tradition through community service and celebration.
While it’s true that many cultures participate in some form of ancestor worship, I’ve always thought that ghost lanterns on water, viking ships on fire, and fallen leaves on a stream were the poetic counterpoints to our experience of life.
Sometimes I’ll run across something interesting and hold onto it, waiting to write because not only am I sure something related will show up to give it context, but it gives me time to reflect on the connection it makes with the others. This week it was grave markers.
I received a call last week from a trade magazine, Stone in America (unfortunately not online). They had found my blog and were interested in the reasons for its genesis. It was a difficult question because as with all interests and hobbies, it can’t be distilled to a single answer. It’s the result of a love for storytelling, art and history. And conveniently that trinity is reflected in the visual stories embodied in epitaphs and tombstones. Take this item titled Comic Epitaphs from Today’s Inspiration, a blog focusing on illustration from the 30s and 40s. Leif likes the drawings, while I’m more interested in the words. Our focus is different but our interest is shared. It’s a stretch believing these are truly taken from actual headstones since there’s no more detail about them. But maybe they were never meant to truly be used as epitaphs, only as a way for folks to find a little light humor in the inevitability of death. A little mystery surrounds them.
Today their equivalent is becoming more technically sophisticated. No more colorfully illustrated and mysterious chapbooks to be found at the back of a bookstore. Now we seem to expect a whole “rich media” experience right in the moment. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just mindbogglingly different. The latest trend in Japan employed by a memorial stone maker there uses sophisticated graphical bar codes (called QR codes which are related to, but dissimilar from RFID chips). They are inexpensive to produce, will likely have a longer lifespan in terms of access, and can be easily read by cell phones with cameras. The idea is to point and click your camera phone at one of these bar codes and, with the right software installed, the image will link you to a web page with more information about that physical object (as long as a web page is maintained of course). It requires you use less of your imagination, but provides a whole new world of information you never would’ve had access to before. Is it art or storytelling or both? Same could be said of Stonehenge. And perhaps someday people will look at these tiny QR codes embedded in monuments wonder at them in the same way. (Thanks to Karen for the tip!)
This is a beautiful telling of the week long series of events surrounding a Japanese (Shinto) funeral. Despite having spent time in Japan, and being privileged enough to visit some amazing cemeteries, as gaijin such a level of participation in a culture’s traditions (along with weddings) is of course very rare. If you’re interested in a fictional tale that recounts similar cultural differences then you might enjoy an entertaining book called American Fuji . It is about an American professor who loses her job teaching English and eventually becomes employed at a Japanese “fantasy funeral” company. I find it comforting that there are so many ways to celebrate a person’s passing and yet our need to honor the dead in some way meaningful to us is universal. “Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere – everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.” –Philip Glass
It’s my fascination with human nature, the natural curiosity of an amateur cultural anthropologist and my inbred librarian proclivities that compels me to ferret out the things people search for online. Today I wandered over to del.icio.us out of the same mysterious force that propels you down that darkened alleyway or that deserted stack of books in the back of the shop. Inevitably it remains fascinating the information people feel is worthy of saving and sharing, especially when they match interests you didn’t know you had. For instance, this list seems to make the odds of you dying in your sleep even more remote than usual. This information goes to show you don’t even have to be dead to have people think of you that way. There even exists a patent for a talking tombstone. I wasted(?) hours combing through other people’s bookmarks which made me think of how bookshelves are intimate reflections of inner lives. I know it is extremely personal, and some people wouldn’t even think of sharing their reading habits, but you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at the books they save, and the bookmarks they keep. And since this is the end of “Banned Books Week” it’s also a good reminder that governments throughout time have been known to abuse your privilege to hold them dear.
Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. I was surprised to learn he was the first American and Buddhist scholar to be ordained by the Dalai Lama. In his Ted Talk, (filmed in 2006 and posted just recently) Thurman has some great things to say about self awareness despite couching it in terms of technology which I suppose is due to the nature of the venue. But he really gets rolling around the six minute mark. It struck me because I’ve always considered how heartbreaking it is to be compassionate if it means taking on another person’s pain. He explains this paradox of how embracing someone else’s pain actually makes us see ourselves differently. And most remarkably, the way to help those who suffer is by having a good time. You have to listen to him to really make sense of this, but in part the key to compassion is that it is more fun (and by this I think he means rewarding) than focusing on only yourself. He asks, what is our brain for if not for compassion? What is it for indeed…not to worry about how we achieve our own happiness in this lifetime, but contributing daily to the happiness of another is our brain’s greatest gift. So to heck with all that worry about my next paycheck, who will I make happy today?!
In a recent eulogy I heard the pastor recite Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “To every thing there is a season…” and it pinched because although I know he meant it as a source of comfort, it reminded me of that other old saw, “timing is everything.” Damn, why must my timing always be so different from yours? And which season would death best fit anyway? We are learning the physics of time is an artificial construct but one thing scientists seem to agree on is that, like the universe, it is constantly flowing away from us. How do you capture the time someone spent on earth in the few minutes allotted to you at a memorial for it? Some people are suddenly inspired and bring that person to life because it is “the most important thing they’ll ever do.” They don’t talk only about themselves, unless doing so involves the whole audience. They might not even talk at all.
When Einstein lost his lifelong friend, Michele Besso, in a consolation letter to Besso’s family he wrote, “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” It is a heartfelt sentiment, but I’m sure he was as frustrated with that stubborn illusion as I am. It could be that dream time is the only other illusion where we are still able to join those whose time for us has come and gone and where what we say doesn’t matter as much as that we remember.
UPDATE: To go with the post, a very sweet tune called Time by Kelley McRae (nice site but I sure wish Flash would let me link directly to the song). Thanks Lux! My, but she is Patsy Cline reincarnated and I’m only sorry I won’t get to see her as St. Joan.
“I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: The Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.”
(Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths (1964). The Library of Babel, p. 58)
I feel my life is a maze at times, and a labyrinth at others. When I run into what feels like a dead-end or when I come to a fork in the road, then it’s a maze. When I feel that I’m on the right path, or that something good is about to happen, I speed up and take the obvious and straightforward way. Mazes are a game of logic (or a confrontation of fear) and labyrinths are a meditation or prayer. So it depends on your perspective, is life a game or a river predestined for you that flows naturally from birth to death? Or is it both at different times? The only thing I know now is that when your in the middle of one, turning back doesn’t seem to be a viable option.
So I’m taking a break from this journal for a few days. I’ll be back in a bit, after a few more turns.